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THE PASSING OF MONGOLIAN MYSTERY
I know of no other country about which there is so much misinformation as about Mongolia. Because the Gobi Desert stretches through its center the popular conception appears to be that it is a waste of sand and gravel incapable of producing anything. In the preceding chapters I have attempted to give a picture of the country as we found it and, although our interests were purely zoölogical, I should like to present a few notes regarding its commercial possibilities, for I have never seen a land which is readily accessible and is yet so undeveloped.
Every year the Far East is becoming increasingly important to the Western World, and especially to the people of the United States, for China and its dependencies is the logical place for the investment of American capital. It is the last great undeveloped field, and I am interested in seeing the American business man appreciate the great opportunities which await him in the Orient.
It is true that the Gobi Desert is a part of Mongolia, but only in its western half is it a desolate waste; in the eastern section it gradually changes into a rolling plain covered with "Gobi sage brush" and short bunch grass. When one looks closely one sees that the underlying soil is very fine gravel and sand.
There is little water in this region except surface ponds, which are usually dry in summer, and caravans depend upon wells. The water in the desert area contains some alkali but, except in a few instances, the impregnation is so slight that it is not especially disagreeable to the taste. Mr. Larsen told me that there is no part of the country between Kalgan and Urga in which water cannot be found within ten or twenty feet of the surface. I am not prepared to say what this arid region could be made to produce. Doubtless, from the standpoint of agriculture it would be of little importance but sheep and goats could live upon its summer vegetation, I am sure.
It is difficult to say where the Gobi really begins or ends when crossing it between Kalgan and Urga, for the grasslands both on the south and north merge so imperceptibly into the arid central part that there is no real "edge" to the desert; however, it is safe to take Panj-kiang as the southern margin, and Turin as the northern limit, of the Gobi. Both in the north and south the land is rich and fertile — much like the plains of Siberia or the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska.
Such is the eastern Gobi from June to mid-September. In the winter, when the dried vegetation exposes the surface soil, the whole aspect of the country is changed and then it does resemble the popular conception of a desert. But what could be more desertlike than our north China landscape when frost has stripped away the green clothing of its hills and fields?
The Chinese have already demonstrated the agricultural possibilities in the south and every year they reap a splendid harvest of oats, wheat, millet, buckwheat and potatoes. On the grass-covered meadowlands, both north and south of the Gobi, there are vast herds of sheep, goats, cattle and horses, but they are only a fraction of the numbers which the pasturage could support. The cattle and sheep which are exported through China can be sent to Kalgan "on the hoof," for since grass is plentiful, the animals can graze at night and travel during the day. This very materially reduces the cost of transportation.
Besides the great quantities of beef and mutton which could be raised and marketed in the Orient, America or Europe, thousands of pounds of wool and camel hair could be exported. Of course both of these articles are produced at the present time, but only in limited quantities. In the region where we spent the summer, the Mongols sometimes do not shear their sheep or camels but gather the wool from the ground when it has dropped off in the natural process of shedding. Probably half of it is lost, and the remainder is full of dirt and grass which detracts greatly from its value. Moreover, when it is shipped the impurities add at least twenty per cent to its weight, and the high cost of transportation makes this an important factor. Indeed, under proper development the pastoral resources of Mongolia are almost unlimited.
The Turin-Urga region has another commercial asset in the enormous colonies of marmots which inhabit the country for hundreds of miles to the north, east and west. The marmots are prolific breeders — each pair annually producing six or eight young — and, although their fur is not especially fine, it has always been valuable for coats. Several million marmot pelts are shipped every year from Mongolia, the finest coming from Uliassutai in the west, and were American steel traps introduced the number could be doubled.
Urga is just being discovered as a fur market. Many skins which have been taken well across the Russian frontier are sold in Urga, and as the trade increases it will command a still wider area. Wolves, foxes, lynx, bear, wildcats, sables, martens, squirrels and marmots are brought in by thousands; and great quantities of sheep, goat, cow and antelope hides are sent annually to Kalgan. Several foreign fur houses of considerable importance already have their representatives in Urga and more are coming every year. The possibilities for development in this direction are almost boundless, and I believe that within a very few years Urga will become one of the greatest fur markets of the Orient.
As in the south the Chinese farmer cultivates the grasslands of the Mongols, so in the north the Chinese merchant has assumed the trade. Many firms in Peking and Tientsin have branches in Urga and make huge profits in the sale of food, cloth and other essentials to the Mongols and foreigners and in the export of furs, skins and wool. It is well-nigh impossible to touch business in Mongolia at any point without coming in contact with the Chinese.
All work not connected with animals is assumed by Chinese, for the Mongols are almost useless for anything which cannot be done from the back of a horse. Thus the Chinese have a practical monopoly and they exercise all their prerogatives in the enormous prices which they charge for the slightest service. Mongols and foreigners suffer together in this respect, but there is no alternative — the Chinaman can charge what he pleases, for he knows full well that no one else will do the work.
Although there is considerable mineral wealth in northern Mongolia, up to the present time very little prospecting has been done. For several years a Russian company has carried on successful operations for gold at the Yero mines, between Urga and Kiakhta on the Siberian frontier, but they have had to import practically all their labor from China. We often passed Chinese in the Gobi Desert walking across Mongolia pushing a wheelbarrow which contained all their earthly belongings. They were on their way to the Yero mines for the summer's work; in the fall they would return on foot the way they had come. Now that Mongolia is once more a part of the Chinese Republic, the labor problem probably will be improved for there will certainly be an influx of Chinese who are anxious to work.
Transportation is the greatest of all commercial factors in the Orient and upon it largely depends the development of any country. In Mongolia the problem can be easily solved. At the present time it rests upon camel caravans, ox and pony carts and upon automobiles for passengers. Camel traffic begins in September and is virtually ended by the first of June. Then their places on the trail are taken by ox- and pony carts. Camels make the journey from Kalgan to Urga in from thirty to fifty days, but the carts require twice as long. They travel slowly, at best, and the animals must be given time to graze and rest. Of course, they cannot cross the desert when the grass is dry, so that transportation is divided by the season — camels in winter and carts in summer. Each camel carries from four hundred and fifty to five hundred pounds, and the charges for the journey from Kalgan to Urga vary with conditions at from five to fifteen cents (silver) per cattie (one and one-third pounds). Thus, by the time goods have reached Urga, their value has increased tremendously.
I can see no reason why motor trucks could not make the trip and am intending to use them on my next expedition. Between Panj-kiang and Turin, the first and third telegraph stations, there is some bad going in spots, but a well made truck with a broad wheel base and a powerful engine certainly could negotiate the sand areas without difficulty. After Turin, where the Gobi may be said to end, the road is like a boulevard.
The motor service for passengers which the Chinese Government maintains between Kalgan and Urga is a branch of the Peking-Suiyuan Railway and has proved successful after some initial difficulties due to careless and inexperienced chauffeurs. Although the service badly needs organization to make it entirely safe and comfortable, still it has been effective even in its crude form.
At the present time a great part of the business which is done with the Mongols is by barter. The Chinese merchants extend credit to the natives for material which they require and accept in return cattle, horses, hides, wool, etc., to be paid at the proper season. In recent years Russian paper rubles and Chinese silver have been the currency of the country, but since the war Russian money has so depreciated that it is now practically valueless. Mongolia greatly needs banking facilities and under the new political conditions undoubtedly these will be materially increased.
A great source of wealth to Mongolia lies in her magnificent forests of pine, spruce, larch and birch which stretch away in an almost unbroken line of green to far beyond the Siberian frontier. As yet but small inroads have been made upon these forests, and as I stood one afternoon upon the summit of a mountain gazing over the miles of timbered hills below me, it seemed as though here at least was an inexhaustible supply of splendid lumber. But no more pernicious term was ever coined than "inexhaustible supply!" I wondered, as I watched the sun drop into the somber masses of the forest, how long these splendid hills would remain inviolate. Certainly not many years after the Gobi Desert has been crossed by lines of steel, and railroad sheds have replaced the gold-roofed temples of sacred Urga.
We are at the very beginning of the days of flying, and no land which contains such magnificent spruce can keep its treasure boxes unspoiled for very long. Even as I write, aeroplanes are waiting in Peking to make their first flight across Mongolia. The desert nomads have not yet ceased to wonder at the motor cars which cover as many miles of plain in one day as their camels cross in ten. But what will they think when twenty men leave Kalgan at noon and dine in Urga at seven o'clock that night! Seven hundred miles mean very little to us now! The start has been made already and, after all, it is largely that which counts. The automobile has come to stay, we know; and motor trucks will soon do for freight what has already been done for passengers, not only from Kalgan to Urga, but west to Uliassutai, and on to Kobdo at the very edge of the Altai Mountains. Few spots in Mongolia need remain untouched, if commercial calls are strong enough.
Last year the first caravans left Feng-chen with wireless equipment for the eighteen hundred mile journey across Mongolia to Urumchi in the very heart of central Asia. Construction at Urga is well advanced and it will soon begin at Kashgar. When these stations are completed Kobdo in Mongolia, Hami in Chinese Turkestan and Sian-fu in Shensi will see wireless shafts erected; and old Peking will be in touch with the remotest spots of her far-flung lands at any time by day or night.
These things are not idle dreams — they are hard business facts already in the first stages of accomplishment. Why, then, should the railroad be long delayed? It may be built from Kalgan to Urga, or by way of Kwei-hua-cheng — either route is feasible. It will mean a direct connection between Shanghai, China's greatest port, and Verkhin Udinsk on the Trans-Siberian Railroad via Tientsin, Peking, Kalgan, Urga, Kiakhta. It will shorten the trip to London by at least four days for passengers and freight. It will open for settlement and commercial development a country of boundless possibilities and unknown wealth which for centuries has been all but forgotten.
Less than seven hundred years ago Mongolia well-nigh ruled the world. Her people were strong beyond belief, but her empire crumbled as quickly as it rose, leaving to posterity only a glorious tradition and a land of mystery. The tradition will endure for centuries; but the motor car and aeroplane and wireless have dispelled the mystery forever.